A recent study conducted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health appears to have confirmed what many people already know, but choose to ignore: that too many sugary drinks can have a devastating effect on the body.
According to the study, which was co-funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sugar-sweetened drinks contribute substantially to the onset of many chronic diseases and may be responsible annually for as many as 183,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide. Of these, 25,000 deaths each year in the United States alone may be attributable to consumption of sweetened beverages, researchers say.
Using data from the World Health Organization’s “Global Burden of Diseases Study” of 2010, the Harvard team linked sugary drinks to 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases, and 6,000 cancer deaths. Although the United States clearly led the way among industrialized nations, the study shows that more than three-quarters of these deaths occurred in low-to-middle income countries.
Researchers analysed the relationship between sugary-drinks and obesity-related deaths according to various factors, including age and sex. Significantly, they found that Mexico, which has the highest per-capita consumption of sugary beverages, also has the highest death rate due to obesity-related disease (318 deaths per million adults), and Japan, the country with the lowest per-capita consumption of these drinks, has the lowest death rate at 10 deaths per million adults.
Dr. Gitanjali Singh, lead author of the Harvard paper, acknowledges that the study has limitations, but claims that her team’s findings have demonstrated a clear causal link between sugary drinks and “a significant number of deaths.” She says that the results indicate that it is time for “policy makers world-wide to make effective policies to reduce consumption of sugary beverages, such as taxation, mass-media campaigns, and reducing availability of these drinks.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the report has been met unfavourably by the American Beverage Association. In an unsparingly critical statement, the Association claims that the Harvard study’s methodology is unsound, and that it should be subject to peer-review. It suggests that the study is “more about sensationalism than science. It does not show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer – the real causes of death among the studied subjects. The researchers make a huge leap when they take beverage intake calculations from around the globe and allege that those beverages are the cause of deaths which the authors themselves acknowledge are due to chronic disease."
Nevertheless, countless earlier studies – many of which are peer-reviewed – have also suggested that intake of calories from sugary drinks is a prime cause of obesity-related chronic disease. A 2011 report from Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, for instance, reveals that sugary drinks are the number one source of calories among American adolescents. In the popular arena, films like “Super Size Me”, and food advocates like TV chef, Jamie Oliver, have made the public more aware of the potential risks.
But just how bad is the situation? According to a fact sheet released by Harvard, two out of three adults and one third of all children in America are obese. The nation is spending $190 billion a year treating diseases related to obesity. Meanwhile, the beverages industry is spending $3.2 billion each year on promoting its product, much of which is targeted at younger Americans.
Pre-empting the criticism from the American Beverage Association, Harvard’s fact sheet also points out that the beverage industry “aggressively rebuffs suggestions that its products and marketing tactics play any role in the obesity epidemic,” and that “beverage industry-funded studies are four to eight times more likely to show a finding favorable to the industry than independently-funded studies.”
This latest study is likely to add fresh fuel to the current debate about downsizing soda servings. Just one week before the Harvard findings were released, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg had his proposal to ban supersized sugary drinks overturned by a judge who called Bloomberg’s suggestion “arbitrary and capricious.” In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant enacted a law just one day prior to the release of the Harvard report which prevents local councils from limiting the size or sale of soft drinks, and removes the need for restaurants to post calorie counts or other nutritional information. According to Bryant, “It is simply not the role of government to micro-regulate citizens’ dietary decisions. The responsibility for one’s personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise.”
If Bryant is correct in thinking that good health is simply a consequence of individuals making responsible choices, then the people of his state must be among the most irresponsible in the nation. Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity in America.
Of course, if the findings of the Harvard study group are to be believed instead, the answer may not be as simple as that.